EXCLUSIVE: Chuka Umunna, Jo Swinson, Caroline Lucas, even Bianca Jagger, have all taken at face value allegations made by a Liberal Democrat General Election candidate, and so now could now be dragged into a bitter legal action. Our Sutton investigations editor, CARL SHILTON, reports
Just nine days before the General Election, both Chuka Umunna, the recently acquired poster boy for the LibDems, and Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s only MP, have been dragged into a bitter dispute between a candidate and a senior figure on Sutton Council.
Tim Crowley, the leader of the Conservative opposition in Sutton, spent the weekend instructing lawyers to begin possible libel action against Hina Bokhari, the Liberal Democrat candidate trying to win back the Sutton and Cheam seat from the Tories.
Friends of Crowley say that he has been deeply shocked and hurt by claims made by Bokhari, which were then widely circulated from the election candidate’s social media accounts, saying that the councillor had “endorsed” the views of far-right extremists and had “made highly offensive remarks about women” on Twitter.
Last Wednesday, with election day getting closer, Bokhari posted on social media, “This election has been defined by the number of female MPs who have decided not to run again, many who are Tories, due to online abuse.
“Today I sent a letter to my Tory opponent to call out the racist, misogynistic and anti-semitic behaviour of his members and threats to my safety.”
Bokhari has not detailed what she meant by “threats to her safety”, nor whether any such threats had been reported to the police.
Her statement was accompanied by a letter, addressed to her Tory rival Paul Scully, written with a Liberal Democrat Party letter heading, and which she chose to place in the public domain. In her letter, Bokhari said that it had been “brought to my attention” that Scully and Crowley’s “supporters” had “spread misogynistic hate and abuse” and had shared “anti-Semitic material”.
She posted a graphic alongside the letter with screenshots from Twitter that supposedly backed up her claim.
But the actions of Bokhari – or whoever it is who is managing her campaign and running her Twitter feed for her – may seriously backfire, as on Monday she received a letter from lawyers acting on behalf of Crowley, while a serious and detailed complaint about the candidate’s conduct had already been lodged with Liberal Democrat Party headquarters by last Friday.
The complaint, which has been seen by Inside Sutton, states: “Hina Bokhari, candidate for Sutton and Cheam, Pauline Penneck, Ms Bokhari’s agent, and the Sutton and Cheam campaign team (@SuttonLibDems), have brought the party into disrepute by publishing false and defamatory allegations of serious misconduct against two specific named individuals.
“Further, Ms Bokhari and colleagues have acted in a way that is likely to expose themselves, the local party, the national party and individual supporters and members to legal liability through actions for defamation.”
The complaint to the LibDems names Sir Ed Davey and London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon for having “brought the party into disrepute by retweeting these false and defamatory allegations to large followings”.
Also among those to have retweeted Bokhari’s allegations are Lucas and Umunna.
In this era of “social media influencers”, the number of followers someone has can be taken into account when assessing damages in libel trials.
“Sir” Ed (he got his knighthood in 2016 after five years faithfully enabling the Tories to impose austerity on the nation), who is hoping to be returned as the MP for Kingston and Surbiton, has 40,600 Twitter followers; Pidgeon has 13,800; Umunna has 391,700; and Lucas has 439,000.
Bianca Jagger, with 73,800 followers, also retweeted a tweet by Lucas.
In total, Inside Sutton calculates the number of imprints of the tweet at well over 1.5million.
The complainant suggests that anyone who retweeted Bokhari’s accusations did not carry out any checks as to their veracity. “Everyone concerned should be aware that the allegations are defamatory if they are false and should have acted with due caution accordingly but appear not to have done so.
“The allegations are, in fact, false.”
In total, the complaint named 14 people as having spread Bokhari’s false messages; four of them are serving Liberal Democrat councillors in Sutton, inflaming the possible defamation: Ben Andrew, Sam Weatherlake, Manuel Abellan and Jake Short.
The complainant, who describes themself as a Sutton and Cheam constituent and who has voted for the LibDems in the past, has asked the party’s High Command to “consider the specific details about two of these tweets… and ensure that all references to them are removed from your party’s and party members’ social media accounts to prevent further undue and ongoing damage to the rights and reputations the people affected”.
The political landscape in Britain was undoubtedly changed for the worst in 2016 when MP Jo Cox was murdered. In many cases, our elected representatives are rightly more cautious about how they go about their business. In south London that same year, during the London Assembly election campaign in Croydon and Sutton, one candidate had the tyres of their car slashed when the vehicle was parked outside their own home.
But there may also be a tendency for some, less scrupulous wannabe politicians, to overstate and exaggerate their position, in what is becoming known as “victim playing”, in an attempt to win over a few extra votes.
Certainly, when any reasonable view is taken of the allegations Bokhari has made against Scully and Crowley, they amount to utter tosh, using Twitter posts taken totally out of context or with graphics cropped to suit the allegations.
Bokhari’s effort is also, at least, obtuse. Her letter to Scully attempted to associate him with Crowley as a “supporter”, and calls for Crowley’s suspension from the Conservative Party. Inside Sutton understands that Crowley’s resulting libel action is being paid for from a Tory Party legal support fund.
Crowley has been a councillor in Sutton for 14 years and the leader of the opposition since 2014. He took the Tories from just eight councillors to 18 in the 2018 local elections, against the national trend, and has been a constant thorn in the side of Ruth Dombey’s LibDem administration.
It is safe to say they’re not keen on him.
In Crowley’s legal warning letter, seen by Inside Sutton, the lawyer says, “Our client is a man of good standing who has held public office for 14 years. You are seeking to ruin the trust his constituents have in him and to ruin his political career by seeking to pressure Mr Scully and the Conservative Party to suspend him for actions and belief you know are untrue.”
The potential for a severe defamation is very much on the cards.
The 2019 General Election campaign, with Facebook banning political ads which make false claims, is clearly becoming the Fake News election at every level. Sutton LibDems – who run Bokhari’s Twitter and social media accounts – added a further nasty tweet of their own against a member of the public who expressed her dislike of Halal meat. The LibDems had clearly trawled Crowley’s Twitter followers looking for keywords, as the word “Halal” was highlighted in their screengrab.
Understanding why Bokhari and her team have resorted to such crude and crass tactics is worth looking at.
In attempting to chase down Scully’s 12,698 majority from 2017, Bokhari has been struggling to gain traction in her campaign, with lightweight and occasionally embarrassing performances at two hustings events last week.
Her grasp of detail on local issues seemed slight, as she brandished generic promises of action if she were elected, and she openly adopted policies on the hoof that were totally at odds with those of Sutton LibDems.
At the hustings on the day she issued her tweet, she apparently shed a tear as she recounted, her voice trembling, the shock at what she said was the constant online abuse she was receiving.
Almost immediately, Bokhari contradicted herself when she told the audience of voters that she hardly ever goes on Twitter and that she hadn’t been on the platform for a while. Indeed, in September Sutton LibDems were issuing automatic messages saying that, “Hina is no longer running her social media accounts”. Which suggests that tweet to Scully may have been the concoction of whoever looks after her social media accounts.
The tweet activity of which Bokhari – who hardly ever goes on Twitter – so tearfully complained seem pretty benign in the main. In many cases, the tweets are not even from supporters of Scully or Crowley, let alone Conservative Party members, as Bokhari has alleged.
In one “example” of Crowley’s alleged misogyny, Bokhari presented a picture of TV presenter Lorraine Kelly with Crowley asking, “Are you sure it shouldn’t say Witches?” Bokhari’s implication was clear – Crowley thinks all women are “witches”, which would be derogatory if the context was as claimed.
But Bokhari – or whoever is running her Twitter account – had cropped the original tweet to hide the fact that Kelly was wearing a T-shirt with the words “Bow down witches” on it, a Halloween play on a meme associated with Beyoncé. Crowley was merely correcting the original post from another Twitter account that had said, “Bow Down Bitches?”
Hardly misogyny. The full exchange, in context, makes this clear.
Other examples offered up by Bokhari – who hardly ever goes on Twitter – are equally feeble when subject to scrutiny.
A retweet of Crowley’s featured a story in the Evening Standard by Stanley Johnson, the Prime Minister’s father, which was calling for a ban on “cruel” Halal meat. Crowley had retweeted a tweet by a councillor in Essex that he wasn’t following and of whom he had no knowledge. It transpired the Essex councillor was a member of the For Britain party.
The LibDems claim that this is evidence of “support” for a far-right group. Sources close to Crowley say that the claim is ridiculous.
Crowley has given Bokhari and her agent Penneck a deadline of December 9 to retract and apologise. Sutton LibDem councillor Ben Andrew has repeated his “100 per cent support” for Bokhari’s claims, but has also said he won’t comment on the matter while an “investigation” is ongoing.
Next Monday, just three days before polling day, could see the issue erupt further, as Bokhari’s attempts at garnering sympathy votes with contrived and allegedly defamatory allegations backfire.
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